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Business as Usual: Why ‘the Handshake’ Has Had Little Impact on the Fortunes of the Luo People

18 min read.

“How can Raila be happy with the Handshake when it has does nothing for us in Nyanza?” posed the women. “At least during the coalition government, the fish factories were revived. The nusu mkate [half bread] government delivered some economic dividends. The recent pact seems to have no economic agenda for the urban poor who bore the brunt of police brutality in the last presidential elections.



Business as Usual: Why ‘the Handshake’ Has Had Little Impact on the Fortunes of the Luo People
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“The Luo community is happy Raila is back at the centre,” intoned our physician friend, Dr Sam Owino. In the last twelve months, since the surprise political rapprochement between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his antagonist-in-chief Raila Odinga, the talk about town has been how the Luos are now reaping from the so-called “Handshake”. “We’re no longer the political bogeyman of the state,” reiterated the Nairobi physician. “It has never been fun carrying the tag and burden of oppositional politics in the country for all these years.”

After the Handshake, which had been preceded by a piercing palpable tension across the country, Raila, the leader of the nascent opposition outfit, the National Super Alliance (NASA), broke ranks with his colleagues Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula to sue for peace with President Uhuru of the Jubilee Party. “Koro wan eisirkal,” (We’re now in government…we’re no longer in the opposition) said Raila soon after the Handshake, a statement that was reiterated by President Uhuru. A visitor to the country soon after the combustible double elections would never appreciate and digest fully the import of that statement.

No community in Kenya has borne the brunt of the state’s political malice and economic sabotage than the Luo people, observed Oduor. “The Luo people have suffered the greatest political harassment and assassinations in this country, starting with Argwings Kodhek, who was killed in January 1969…”

To a section of the Luo community, “being in the political cold,” is a phrase they identify with all too well. “The Luo people have been in the opposition effectively since 1966, when President Jomo Kenyatta shunted his Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga,” said Bernard Oduor, an advertising and marketing manager of a Nairobi-based publishing company. “Let another community shoulder the weight of being always on the receiving end of the state’s anti-development brutal policies and constant violence.”

No community in Kenya has borne the brunt of the state’s political malice and economic sabotage than the Luo people, observed Oduor. “The Luo people have suffered the greatest political harassment and assassinations in this country, starting with Argwings Kodhek, who was killed in January 1969. Six months later, Tom Mboya, perhaps the greatest of Luo leaders, was killed, possibly by the same forces that took care of Kodhek through a freak accident.”

That same year, 1969, the government detained Jaramogi with other Luo leaders for standing up to Jomo and the Kiambu Mafia’s imperial tendencies, recalls Oduor. “It was a cruel testament of the political harassment by the successive government of Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi that by the time multipartyism was being re-introduced in Kenya, in 1991, Jaramogi was already frail, old and sickly.” A multiparty election was held in December 1992 and Jaramogi was elected the MP for Bondo. A year later, on January 20, 1994, Jaramogi was dead.

From 1963 to 1978, Kenya had been a de facto one party state. But in 1982, just before the attempted military putsch led by Kenya Air Force officers on August 1, 1982, the country become a de jure one party state, after Jaramogi and George Anyona, the firebrand politician from Gusiiland, walked to the registrar’s office at Sheria House and demanded to register their party – the Kenya African Socialist Alliance (KASA). Feeling threatened by the duo’s courage and determination to register a new party, one afternoon Moi summoned MPs and asked them to change the constitution to make Kenya a one-party dictatorship.

“Even though Robert Ouko, the brilliant foreign affairs minister, worked for the Kanu government and was a loyal lieutenant of Moi, they still got rid of him, proving that no Luo politician was good enough for a Kenyan government,” opined Oduor. “It has been a tortuous long journey and it’s time we enjoyed some respite.”

Broken promises    

In the aftermath of a contested August 8, 2017 election and the subsequent boycott of the second presidential election on October 26, 2017, the state visited violence on members of the Luo community in Nairobi County, and especially in the lakeside town of Kisumu, which is perceived as a base for the Luo community. In both cities, hordes of youth from the ghetto suburbs of Kibera and Mathare in Nairobi and Nyalenda and Kondele in Kisumu rioted, protesting the gross mismanagement of the election procedure. Many of the youth who were felled by the bullets of state security personnel were Luo youth.

“The Handshake was meant to cool the political temperatures, which were threatening to soar overboard,” said Steve Ochuodho, a researcher in African history. “It was to allow for the country to go back to its normal self and stabilise, with the aim of the country hopefully taking off economically. True, the country stabilised, but nothing much has really happened thereafter.”

The promises that Raila made after the Handshake, ostensibly to the Luo community, are nothing new, explained Ochuodho: “They are the same promises Raila has been making since 1997 when he merged his fledging National Democratic Party (NDP) with Kanu. Since then, it is the Odinga family that has continually grown rich at the expense of the Luo people…”

“Contrary to popular belief being peddled by ‘Raila evangelists’ that the Luos are now in government, nothing could be further from the truth,” noted Ochuodho. “Luos aren’t in the government and more than ever before, they are languishing in poverty. I fret every time I hear that Luos are now enjoying and I ask: Which Luos are these? If there are any Luos in government, they must be Raila’s friends or his relatives from Siaya County,” added the researcher.

The promises that Raila made after the Handshake, ostensibly to the Luo community, are nothing new, explained Ochuodho: “They are the same promises Raila has been making since 1997 when he merged his fledging National Democratic Party (NDP) with Kanu. Since then, it is the Odinga family that has continually grown rich at the expense of the Luo people. Because of these Raila Handshakes, the Luo people are treated as the Odinga family’s captives to be traded with politically any time the family wants to reap financially from the existing government.”

“There are no deliverables, neither are there fruits to be harvested from the Handshake,” said Ochuodho. “All what we are hearing is what it intends to do, It is classic political brinkmanship.” All what the Handshake has done is to entrench even further retrogressive leadership in Luo Nyanza.”

“Through the Handshake, Cyprian Awiti, the Homa Bay governor, came back. Every Luo voter, wherever he or she was, knew Awiti was never going to survive a by-election if the court upheld the petition.” Former Kasipul MP Oyugi Magwanga had successively petitioned both the High Court and the Court of Appeal, only for the Supreme Court to uphold his election victory in August 8, 2017.

With the coming by-election in Ugenya, Raila has already told the voters ahead of time that they should not let him down – that they should return Christopher Karan, who the court found had engaged in electoral malpractices, pointed out Ochuodho. “Kik ukuod wiya jothurwa, (Please don’t embarrass me), Raila told the voters when he went there recently. Even though Karan is unpopular, the ODM party still gave him a direct ticket.” David Ouma Ochieng, Karan’s chief opponent and the immediate former MP, whose petition was heard by the High Court in Kisumu, will be mounting a soap box when the by-election comes up on April 5, 2019.

“The Luo people were not ready for the Handshake,” said Mike Osilo, an information technologist in Nairobi. “Because they were ready for war. The state’s unceasing violence against the Luo people had created in them an appetite for unstoppable bloodshed. They were prepared to go the whole hog.”

Osilo said this hardline stance had been fomented during the October 26 fresh presidential elections when elections did not take place in four Nyanza counties (Homa Bay, Kisumu, Migori and Siaya). “For the first in the history of post-independent Kenya, a people had successively held back a state with all its militarised violence. From then on, the people decided there was no turning back and then the Handshake happened.”

“The Building the Bridges Initiative, the result of the Handshake, has now become a parastatal,” quipped Osilo. “It was meant to give jobs to the favoured boys. Everything is business as usual. If the Handshake and its appendage, the BBI, was serious in developing Luo Nyanza, it would have started by reviving Ahero Irrigation Scheme and the Chemilil, Muhoroni and Sony sugar factories…”

Osilo said Raila’s Handshake compensation promise to the families that lost their relatives in the last election, especially in Kisumu, has remained just that: a promise. “Immediately after the Handshake, Raila went down to Kondele, the site of the greatest state violence visited on a people. Scores of youth were killed by the GSU and Raila that night told their families that the government was going to compensate them. The people were in a very uncompromising mood, but Raila managed to calm them down. Twelve months later, there is nothing to show for that promise.”

“The Building the Bridges Initiative, the result of the Handshake, has now become a parastatal,” quipped Osilo. “It was meant to give jobs to the favoured boys. Everything is business as usual. If the Handshake and its appendage, the BBI, was serious in developing Luo Nyanza, it would have started by reviving Ahero Irrigation Scheme and the Chemilil, Muhoroni and Sony sugar factories, for instance. When I hear people talking of deliverables through the Handshake, I wonder where these deliverables are to be found.”

“Let it be on record: The much talked about dredging vessel brought to Lake Victoria actually preceded the Handshake – Raila just hijacked its launching on January 19, 2019. Likewise, the ongoing resuscitation of the Kenya Breweries Limited plant in Kisumu is not a product of the Handshake: KBL had already given the farmers the go-ahead [before the Handshake took place] to start sowing sorghum. As for the ferry transport on Lake Victoria, the World Bank had already mapped the lake for its Lake Victoria Transport programme as far back as 2016,” noted Osilo.

“One year down the line, the Handshake had become a forum for exchanging insults,” said Ochuodho. “Those who used Ruto to thrust a poisoned dagger into Raila’s back are the same people who are now are using him to stab Ruto in the back.” In Ochuodho’s view, “Canaan had become a mirage”, whose climax was deporting Joshua Miguna Miguna, a deportation Ochuodho squarely blames Raila for. “I can tell you this, the Handshake will not last – it will soon collapse, and after it collapses, Raila will walk away in shame, this time accompanied by old age.” The referendum which is supposed to be the outcome of BBI is “already poisoned,” summed up Ochuodho.

No bridges built in Kisumu

In the lakeshore Kisumu city, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)’s first anniversary went unnoticed. The residents we interviewed were resolute that the Handshake was still a puzzle and shrouded in mystery. Hence, the rapprochement means different things to different people. One year after it took place, it still dominates public discussions, eliciting more questions than answers.

“Did the Handshake simply substitute Luo-Kalenjin elite rivalry with the Luo-Gikuyu elite one? Are the Gikuyu elite now holding the ring between Raila Odinga and William Ruto? Who really is our enemy?” posed a middle-aged man at the Bunge la Wananchi (Peoples’ Parliament) meeting taking place under the huge canopy of an oak-like tree off the Kisumu-Kampala Road where real politik is earnestly and hotly debated during the lunch break.

For some of Kisumu’s residents, what the Handshake has succeeded in doing is resuscitate puzzling questions that revolve around Raila’s political deftness and survival instincts. “Raila’s an avid football fan and right now he has the ball…will he, this time just get away with a high ball against William Ruto? If he does, will Ruto, stand between him and the goal? Or, will he this time finally score the winning goal, now that the referees of the presidential tourney seems to be on his side?” mused Willis Ochieng. “Ruto is not a leader, he’s a dealer. There’s no doubt he would be bad for the country – he’s unsympathetic to the feelings of the people. But that aside, the big question that has been disturbing us is, just what is in it for the rest of the spectator crowd?

At the Kondele highway interchange, we met Shem Matiku, a cobbler who plies his trade below the interchange. Kondele was the site of fierce battles between the battle-hardened youth of the sprawling ghetto, who fought back the paramilitary police, the General Service Unit (GSU) in August 2017 after the first presidential election. Matiku had since put that terrible period behind him: “I’m an optimist. I believe Raila has the best interests of his people. Uhuru, unlike Ruto is not a hardliner, he could be a hard bargainer, but a bargainer nonetheless and that is why he made a pact with Raila.”

“Ruto’s too forceful,” reflected Matiku, in between shining his customers’ shoes. “It is as if he’s forcing the people to elect him: it’s either his way or the highway.” The cobbler observed that until Raila went into government, development in Luo Nyanza was lopsided. “Now we’re beginning to see some development our way: Kenya Breweries has reopened its factory and construction of roads has commenced and corruption is being fought…you know what…Raila helped Uhuru see state corruption in the government. Let the spirit of the Handshake flow. We support it one hundred percent.”

However, George Collins Owour, an astute civil society leader, is utterly unimpressed by the Handshake. “We wanted to put up a monument in honour of the victims of political violence, preferably at the Jomo Kenyatta sports ground and have Raila Odinga launch it,” said Owuor. “A monument that would tell the story of the victims of political violence, and a constant reminder to the youth of the dangers of political violence, while at the same time establishing a link between poverty and politics. The monument had been also intended to occupy a space for discussing political violence and how it distracts and destroys lives of many unhinged youth. It would remind them of the dangers of disorganised and unhelpful protests and thereby discourage them from participating in them.”

“The youth are always ready to participate in protests, but where are they now? Some were killed and maimed, others were arrested and falsely accused of robbery with violence and are now languishing in jail, having been forgotten,” lamented Owuor. “The irony is that the county government of Kisumu, while rejecting our proposal, was quick to fast track its own plans of erecting a statue in memory of Jaramogi Odinga.”

“Jaramogi initiated the Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation, which inspired small- and medium-scale business initiatives in Nyanza region. As a social democrat, Jaramogi also led popular grassroots movements for political and cultural awareness in the whole of East Africa,” said Prof Anyang Nyong’o, the Governor of Kisumu.

While the contribution of Jaramogi among the Luo community is in no doubt and cannot be contested, whether in Luo Nyanza or, indeed the entire country, to seemingly bury the history of the youth, who have paid with their lives for fighting for democracy, is callous and deceitful, bemoaned Owuor. “Let us not kid ourselves – the Handshake has not worked for the youth: the boda bodas (motor cycle riders), street vendors and hawkers are still suffering – some lost their lives, others are today living with live bullets in their bodies. Nobody talks about their plight and President Uhuru and Raila have largely forgotten about them.”

Owuor said it would be pretentious to build bridges when the youth have been neglected. “The youth had been promised Canaan. Instead what they got was a Handshake between two political bigwigs who cared for nothing as far as the youth were concerned. Because of this, Raila cannot hold a rally in Kisumu – the youth are still very embittered.”

The divided opinion of Kisumu residents suggested that the Handshake was a self-preservation elite pact. Raila’s core political constituents, still hurting and nursing post-presidential election injuries and injustices since 2007, and suffering biting hunger pangs in these economic hard times, have been forced, yet again, to defer their quest for justice and reparations.

The civil society leader said BBI was a reward for the boys. “I’ve been seeing them in seminars taking selfies, and we’ve yet to see a preliminary report of its findings. If BBI was working, we wouldn’t have heard the kind of political rhetoric and bitterness we witnessed at the Kirinyaga governors’ conference. Truth be told, BBI has been overtaken by events…stupid…succession politics is the order of the day.”

The divided opinion of Kisumu residents suggested that the Handshake was a self-preservation elite pact. Raila’s core political constituents, still hurting and nursing post-presidential election injuries and injustices since 2007, and suffering biting hunger pangs in these economic hard times, have been forced, yet again, to defer their quest for justice and reparations.

Hard feelings, brought about by past betrayals by a cross-section of the Gikuyu elite, the construction of a few road projects, the appointment of a few sons-of-the-soil into public offices, and some subsidy for the beleaguered sugarcane farmers to numb the Luo people’s raw wounds, as they cheat them again, are still very real.

The mixed reactions also revealed a wide gap between the politics that the Handshake enabled at the county level – where incompetent, corrupt, and nepotistic leadership is the name of the game, and where Raila’s hard core support base yearns for a clean and competent government that can deliver healthcare, food, and clean water – and national-level politics, where the very same Raila has been baying for the blood of some of the corrupt, inept and ethnic chauvinists in charge of various ministries.

Drunk with power by proxy

At the county level, the Handshake, it seems, is politics as usual. It starkly reminds Kenyans, especially residents of Kisumu, Homa Bay, Siaya and Migori counties, that their political fortunes or misfortunes since independence have risen or fallen hard with every elite pact, and the ever changing political coalitions, mostly beholden to expedient political interests.

“This time, it’s a call for a big sacrifice from Raila’s political ambitions, an exchange for the quest for justice for the electoral malpractices and victims of police violence, for some ‘development’,” and ultimately, Raila’s quest for the presidency or premiership,” posited Martin Augo.

If Raila’s core support base yearns for competent and accountable county governments is unmistakable, then the Handshake seemed to make such demands only at the national government level, points out Willis Ochieng, a tenderprenuer who has worked in several county governments in western Kenya. “The Handshake,” said Ochieng, “ilituliza joto la siasa, lakini wananchi bado hawana huduma. Ma MCAs, wamesahau hata watu wao kabisa. Wanapigana bunge kujaza mifuko yao tu.” (The Handshake cooled the political temperatures, but the people still lack services. These MCAs have completely ignored the people who elected them. They fight in their respective assemblies to fill their pockets).

In several social media platforms, Kenyans envy the counties that have made remarkable progress and built infrastructure that makes county residents proud, such as the stadium in Kakamega County, the hospital in Makueni County, and the level-six hospital in Kisii County. But hardly anyone envies a hyacinth-free Siaya or Homa Bay or a world class football stadium in Migori. Raila’s strongholds, it seems, have nothing to show for the six years of the devolved government experiment.

Drunk with power by proxy, the party, it seems, is wasting its energy, distracted by chasing “the rat that is escaping a burning house” rather than putting out the fire that is consuming the house. ODM, it seems, reserves its harshest punishment for minnows, inconsequential transgressions and comical infractions, rather than the life-and-death violations of the men-only governors of its core ODM political base…

One hears only an occasional gnashing of clerical teeth, a dissatisfied Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) Bishop James Ochiel of Southern Nyanza diocese, but hardly a gnashing of the second liberators’ teeth, the custodians of the spirit of the struggle against bad government, among them the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party’s honchos.

Drunk with power by proxy, the party, it seems, is wasting its energy, distracted by chasing “the rat that is escaping a burning house” rather than putting out the fire that is consuming the house. ODM, it seems, reserves its harshest punishment for minnows, inconsequential transgressions and comical infractions, rather than the life-and-death violations of the men-only governors of its core ODM political base – men who, except for Prof Nyong’o, are seen as corrupt, nepotistic, incapable and fantastically generous with cash hand-outs, often given to a few hangers-on as they ride out a lacklustre two-term tenure at the helm of the Homa Bay, Siaya, and Migori county governments.

The ODM mandarins and Raila evangelists would rather they shadow and listen to the double meaning of Aisha Jumwa’s supposed disloyalty and sexed-up taunts of kiuno kiuno (hip gyrations) or “Kanugo e teko,” in Kisumu-speak. Aisha Jumwa’s flaunting of her sex appeal, which seems to gain the ire of the mostly male ODM party honchos, might look comical, but it is a timely reminder than the ODM party leaders may have to work extra hard to keep women’s support. Many women who support the party are hurting and hard done by tough economic times.

No justice for victims of political violence

In Kisumu’s Obunga slum, we sat down with two women outside the aptly named New Obunga Pub, who out of fear of reprisal from ODM Kisumu party hacks requested anonymity. “Risasi oweyo goyo udi wa. tear gas orumo,” (The bullets have stopped hitting our houses and the tear gas is no more), said the lady with a spec of gray hair. “The only respite we have now is that people are no longer running helter-skelter…we, at least, can move freely,” intoned her younger friend. “But there is nothing much else: there is no business, no income, we can’t buy anything because we don’t have the money. You just hustle as hard and kama kawaida (as usual nothing has changed). There is no work for the youth.”

Many, especially women, are still hurting and carrying the scars of the political violence of the 2017 presidential elections. They are also deeply impacted by the tough economic times. “Women were raped. Some lost family members, and although some of the victims formed a support group and were given food at the Kenyatta sports ground, they didn’t get any other help,” said one of the women, a human rights defender, who was hunched over an old model laptop plastered with stickers.

Justice for the victims of political violence has remained a sticky sour question. Unlike their counterparts from Central Kenya, many of the internally displaced people (IDPs) or returnees who came back to Kisumu and neighbouring counties are still waiting for the token financial compensation for the loss of land or livelihood.

The majority of the victims of the recent political violence feel let down by their elected leaders. At best, the elected leaders have been opportunistic and at worst indifferent to the plight of the victims. Shena Ryan, who works with a youth group that runs a charity for the poor living with HIV on the outskirts of Kisumu city, said, “It’s not enough to pay for the funeral expenses and give hand-outs to the bereaved for cheap publicity. A politician’s still a politician, always looking out for cheap glorification.”

Ryan reckons that the Handshake had restored stability, no doubt, because “Kikuyus could now again trade freely in Kibuye. We went to the streets, to protest electoral injustices, and some of us were killed. No one has got justice. They are telling us the OCS Nyalenda will be charged. Until these policemen are charged, it will remain just a narrative.”

Said the social worker, “I wasn’t for the Handshake and now, with the knowledge of hindsight, it would have been better had we not poured into the streets. Until the two buffaloes who shook hands come back to the people, purposefully apologise to the victims of the police violence, that Handshake means nothing. Recently, when the duo visited [to attend Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s memorial in Bondo], we were told, ‘Do not heckle Jakom. Who’s Jakom?’” The Handshake has returned us into a one-part state; we are all now in the Jubilee Party.”

In place of the elected leaders, a consortium of civic organisations comprising the Kisumu City Residents Voice, the Kondele Justice Centre, the National Informal Sector Alliance and Kisumu Joint Bunge Initiative, among others, have stepped in to pursue justice for at least 67 people who incurred various bodily injuries, both in the run-up to and after the 2017 presidential elections.

The consortium has petitioned the office of the Chief Justice of Kenya, asking Justice David Maraga to establish a tribunal to look into how security officers singled out and policed Luo Nyanza region during the last general election, to pursue justice for the victims of police violence, and to recommend the prosecution of the police officers who may be found to have been culpable of violence.

Mixed fortunes

Kisumu residents feel that their elected leaders are also indifferent to their economic plight. “Tich tire” (I’m hard at work) says Governor Prof Anyang’, who valorises the Protestant work ethic. But his constituents, such as Willis Ojwang’, retort, “Tich tire; to kech kecho,” (You are hard at work, but hunger bites sting).

Kisumu is no longer stuck in a socialist-like rut of drab municipal and civil service housing, uniformly dull in a state of disrepair, and the old ubiquitous rickety and dusty Peugeot 404 plying the Kondele-Kondele route that were kept on the narrow and badly maintained roads by the combined genius of the city’s mechanics and take-no-prisoners drivers.

The regional marine transport into the port of Kisumu is as good as dead. And the railway tracks are buried deep in the soil. Yet, the urban poor now cruise through the city’s new road networks and underpasses, four or five passengers in a tuk tuk, (rickshaw-type three-wheeler taxis) or as one or two passengers on a boda boda. Its streets, especially in the CBD, all the way to Kisumu International Airport, are well lit at night.

But the city has not yet turned a corner. Its economy is not yet as dynamic as its demography, especially as it draws in other East Africans, such as the Burundians and more Ugandans, who are hawking consumer goods in search of surplus incomes. More than the Protestant work ethic, Kisumu’s economy is in dire need of structural change, the revival of agricultural sectors and ventures into agribusiness, if only to mitigate the widening gender inequality gap and meet the demands of regional integration.

“How can Raila be happy with the Handshake when it has does nothing for us in Nyanza?” posed the women. “At least during the coalition government, the fish factories were revived. The nusu mkate [half bread] government delivered some economic dividends. The recent pact seems to have no economic agenda for the urban poor who bore the brunt of police brutality in the last presidential elections.”

Although the revival of the KBL Kisumu plant held hope for some, the two women we talked to in Obunga complained that the plant employs people from Nairobi, Uganda, Nyakach, and Machakos, not the residents of Obunga as they had hoped. Worse still, for women who have been left out of the city’s better-paying male dominated boda boda and the car wash businesses, the fish processing companies, which used to employ many women directly and indirectly through trading in mgongo wazi (fish skeletons) is closed. “It was big business for all. But with the coming of the Chinese fish, the companies closed. These companies now use their big freezers and cold rooms to store and redistribute Chinese fish,” said one of the women.

“How can Raila be happy with the Handshake when it has does nothing for us in Nyanza?” posed the women. “At least during the coalition government, the fish factories were revived. The nusu mkate [half bread] government delivered some economic dividends. The recent pact seems to have no economic agenda for the urban poor who bore the brunt of police brutality in the last presidential elections.”

“Prostitution is rife here,” one of the women told us. “If you guys stayed a little longer, you’d see a traffic of women moving up towards Kondele, Gwara-Gwara or Ka-Lorry where sex goes for as little Sh20 per shot. What has the Handshake done for us? It has pushed us into sex slavery,” moaned the woman dejectedly as the sun was setting on Obunga slum.

Youth too have missed the BBI boat. If university students’ campus politics is a good indicator for the shifting political alliance, then Kathy Gitau, the articulate, urbane, and charming vice chairperson of the Maseno University students’ council knows all too well how significant local politics, including campus politics, are intricately tied to the centre.

Clutching a long list of names of students who deserve bursaries this semester, which are due for submission, she agreed that the Handshake, “had cooled down political temperatures …brought political stability, freedom of movement, and good working relationship across ethnic divides, and on campus, bridged the ethnic rift between students”, making it possible for her and team to invoke the spirit of the Handshake to canvass for votes. As a coalition of three women and four men, and as a coalition of a Luo (chairperson), a Kikuyu (vice chairperson), a Luhya (treasurer), a Kisii and Turkana, they had been elected.”

Stated Gitau: “Before the Handshake, it was hard for a Kikuyu or Kalenjin to get elected by the students. Ethnic discrimination against the Kikuyu and Kalenjin was rife among students. ‘Why should we give you a piece of cake here when you have the national cake?’ argued the students. Our competence, individuality, strong gender and ethnic balance swept us into office. All candidates in our coalition, except one, were elected. We won by a landslide,” said Gitau.

Still, Ms Gitau had some reservations. The Handshake, she said, “has bridged the divisions among the ordinary citizens who can now interact freely, but it has also widened the rift among the political class. It has killed the opposition. Raila now has a central role in government because he seems to have edged out Ruto. This could, as well, affect us, pitting us in an endless cycle of disputes and divisions.”

She, however, admitted that she still doesn’t understand what the Handshake is all about. “Is it supposed to end in a referendum? If so, how will we participate in a process whose outcome or end game is unknown or seems predetermined? What is in it for the youth? Be that as it may, the Handshake seems to have shifted the focus away from the Big Four Agenda issues of food, healthcare, housing and industrialisation.”

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant and Akoko Akech is a graduate student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, presently living in Kisumu.


Is Somalia’s Quest for Membership of the EAC Premature?

Somalia must first ensure sustained progress in stability, infrastructure development, governance, and economic growth before considering full membership of the East African Community.



Is Somalia’s Quest for Membership of the EAC Premature?
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The current members of the East African Community (EAC) are Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan. The Somali Federal Government, under the leadership of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has expressed a strong interest in joining the EAC, sparking questions among Somali citizens as to whether the country is ready to join such a large and complex regional bloc.

During President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud initiated Somalia’s pursuit of EAC membership during his previous term as a president from 2012 to 2017. However, little progress was made during his first term and, following his re-election, President Hassan reignited his pursuit of EAC membership without consulting essential stakeholders such as the parliament, the opposition, and civil society. This unilateral decision has raised doubts about the president’s dedication to establishing a government based on consensus. Moreover, his decision to pursue EAC membership has evoked mixed responses within Somalia. While some Somalis perceive joining the EAC as advantageous for the country, others express concerns about potential risks to Somalia’s economic and social development. President Hassan has defended his decision, emphasising that Somalia’s best interests lie in becoming a member of the EAC.

To assess Somalia’s readiness to join the EAC, the regional bloc undertook a comprehensive verification mission. A team of experts well versed in politics, economics, and social systems, was tasked with evaluating Somalia’s progress. The evaluation included a thorough review of economic performance, trade policies, and potential contributions to the EAC’s integration efforts. During this process, the team engaged with various government institutions and private organisations, conducting comprehensive assessments and discussions to gauge Somalia’s preparedness.

One of the key requirements for Somalia is demonstrating an unwavering commitment to upholding principles such as good governance, democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Somalia must also showcase a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration.

Successful integration into the EAC would not only elevate Somalia’s regional stature but would also foster deeper bonds of cooperation and shared prosperity among the East African nations. While this is a positive step towards regional integration and economic development, there are several reasons for pessimism about the potential success of Somalia’s membership in the EAC.

Somalia must also showcase a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration.

Somalia has faced significant challenges due to prolonged conflict and instability. The decades-long civil war, coupled with the persistent threat of terrorism, has had a devastating impact on the country’s infrastructure, economy, governance systems, and overall stability.

The following fundamental factors raise valid concerns about Somalia’s readiness to effectively participate in the EAC.

Infrastructure development

Infrastructure plays a critical role in regional integration and economic growth. However, Somalia’s infrastructure has been severely damaged and neglected due to years of conflict. The country lacks adequate transportation networks, reliable energy systems, and while communications infrastructure has improved, internet penetration rates remain low and mobile networks – which are crucial for seamless integration with the EAC – can be unavailable outside of urban centres. Rebuilding such infrastructure requires substantial investments, technical expertise, and stability, all of which remain significant challenges for Somalia.

Political stability and governance

The EAC places emphasis on good governance, democracy, and the rule of law as prerequisites for membership. Somalia’s journey towards political stability and effective governance has been arduous, with numerous setbacks and ongoing power struggles. The lack of a unified government, coupled with weak state institutions and a history of corruption, raises doubts about Somalia’s ability to meet the EAC’s standards. Without a stable and inclusive political environment, Somalia may struggle to effectively contribute to the decision-making processes within the regional bloc.

Economic development and trade

Somalia’s economy has been heavily dependent on the informal sector and faces substantial economic disparities. The country needs to demonstrate a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration, as required by the EAC. However, the challenges of rebuilding a war-torn economy, tackling high poverty rates, and addressing widespread unemployment hinder Somalia’s ability to fully participate in regional trade and reap the benefits of integration.

Security Concerns

Somalia continues to grapple with security challenges, including the presence of extremist groups and maritime piracy. These issues have not only hindered the country’s development but also pose potential risks to the stability and security of the entire EAC region. It is crucial for Somalia to address these security concerns comprehensively and to establish effective mechanisms to contribute to the EAC’s collective security efforts.

Economic Disparity and Compatibility

Somalia’s economy primarily relies on livestock, agriculture, and fishing, which may not align well with the more quasi-industralised economies of the other EAC member states. This mismatch could result in trade imbalances and pose challenges for integrating Somalia into the regional economy. For instance, according to the World Bank, Somalia’s GDP per capita was US$447 in 2021 whereas it is US$2081 for Kenya, US$1099 for Tanzania, and US$883 for Uganda. Furthermore, Somalia faces significant economic challenges, including capital flight that drains resources from the country, contributing to its status as a consumer-based economy.

This divergence in economic structures could lead to trade imbalances and impede the seamless integration of Somalia into the regional economy. The substantial economic gap between Somalia and other EAC member states suggests a significant disparity that may hinder Somalia’s ability to fully participate in the EAC’s economic activities. Additionally, Somalia has yet to demonstrate fiscal or economic discipline that would make it eligible for EAC membership. While Somalia has a functioning Central Bank and the US dollar remains the primary mode of financial transactions, the risk of integration lies with the other EAC members; cross-border trade would occur in an environment of instability, posing potential risks to the other member state.

Somalia faces significant economic challenges, including capital flight that drains resources from the country, contributing to its status as a consumer-based economy.

While these fundamental challenges remain, it is important to acknowledge the progress Somalia has made in recent years. This includes the gradual improvement in security conditions, the establishment of key governmental institutions, and the peaceful transfer of power. One can also argue that many of these fundamental economic, infrastructure, political instability, and security concerns exist across the East African Community. However, what makes Somalia unique is the scale of the challenges it faces today. Somalia has adopted a federal political structure, which has not worked well so far. This level of fragmentation and civil political distrust makes Somalia’s case unique. More than ever, Somalia needs meaningful political and social reconciliation before it can embark on a new regional journey.

The absence of an impact assessment by the relevant ministries in Somalia is alarming. Without this assessment, it becomes challenging to make informed decisions about the potential benefits of joining the EAC and the impact on our economy and society. Conducting this assessment should be a priority for Somalia’s ministries to ensure a comprehensive evaluation of the potential benefits and risks involved in EAC membership. Furthermore, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s decision to pursue Somalia’s integration into the EAC lacks political legitimacy as a decision of this nature would normally require ratification through a popular vote and other legal means through parliament. The failure to achieve this could potentially allow another president in the future to unilaterally announce withdrawal from the EAC.

Fragile state of Affairs and internal disputes

The recent reopening of the Gatunda border post between Uganda and Rwanda after a three-year period of strained relations indicates a fragile state of affairs. The East African Court of Justice has ruled that Rwanda’s initial closure of the border was illegal, highlighting the contentious nature of inter-country disputes. Furthermore, Tanzania and Uganda have formally lodged complaints against Kenya, alleging unfair advantages in trade relations, and have even gone as far as threatening Kenya with export bans. These grievances underscore the underlying tensions and competition between member states, which could potentially hinder the harmonious functioning of the East African Community. These political and economic disagreements among member states increase the risks associated with Somalia’s membership. Somalia must carefully evaluate whether it is entering a united and cohesive bloc or one plagued by internal divisions. Joining the East African Community at this juncture carries the risk of being drawn into ongoing disputes and potentially being caught in the crossfire of inter-country rivalries.

Conflict in South Sudan

The prolonged conflict in South Sudan, which has been ongoing since its admission to the East African Community (EAC) in 2016, serves as a cautionary tale for Somalia. Despite the EAC’s efforts to mediate and foster peace in the region, the outcomes have been mixed, resulting in an unsustainable peace. This lack of success highlights the challenges faced by member states in resolving conflicts and maintaining stability within the community. Somalia must carefully evaluate whether its participation in the EAC will genuinely contribute to its stability, economic growth, and development, or if it risks exacerbating existing internal conflicts. Joining the community without a solid foundation of political stability, institutions, and peace could potentially divert resources and attention away from domestic issues, hindering Somalia’s progress towards resolving its own challenges. South Sudan’s admission to the EAC in 2016 was seen as a major step towards regional integration and stability. However, the country has been mired in conflict ever since, with two civil wars breaking out in 2013 and 2016. The EAC has been involved in mediation efforts, with mixed results.

Assessing Readiness

Somalia must evaluate the readiness of its institutions, infrastructure, and economy to effectively engage with the East African Community. Comprehensive preparations are crucial to ensure that joining the community is a well thought-out and strategic decision, rather than a hasty move that could further destabilise the nation. Somalia needs to assess whether its infrastructure, institutions, and economy are sufficiently developed to cope with the challenges and demands of integration. Premature membership could strain Somalia’s resources, impede its growth, and leave it at a disadvantage compared to more established member states.

Somalia must carefully evaluate whether it is entering a united and cohesive bloc or one plagued by internal divisions.

Somalia must ensure sustained progress in stability, infrastructure development, governance, and economic growth before considering full membership of the EAC. A phased approach that prioritises capacity building, institution-strengthening, and inclusive governance would enable Somalia to lay a solid foundation for successful integration and reap the maximum benefits from EAC membership in the long term. Failure to address these concerns would make Somalia vulnerable to exploitation and market monopolies by stronger economies, and could also risk a lack of seamless convergence for Somalia’s membership. While there is political will from EAC leaders to support Somalia’s membership, it is vitally important that they make the right decision for Somalia and the EAC bloc as a whole to ensure a successful integration. I believe that, at this juncture, the disadvantages of Somalia joining the EAC outweigh the benefits.

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2023 Marks 110 Years Since the Maasai Case 1913: Does it Still Matter?

It was a landmark case for its time, a first for East Africa and possibly for the continent. A group of Africans challenged a colonial power in a colonial court to appeal a major land grab and demand reparations. They lost on a technicality but the ripple effects of the Maasai Case continue to be felt.



2023 Marks 110 Years Since the Maasai Case 1913: Does it Still Matter?
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In the name Parsaloi Ole Gilisho there lies an irony. It was spelled Legalishu by the colonial British. Say it out loud. He gave them a legal issue, all right. And a 110-year-old headache.

This extraordinary age-set spokesman (a traditional leader called ol-aiguenani, pl. il-aiguenak) led non-violent resistance to the British, in what was then British East Africa, that culminated in the Maasai Case 1913. Ole Gilisho was then a senior warrior, who was probably in his mid- to late thirties. In bringing the case before the High Court of British East Africa, he was not only challenging the British but also the Maasai elders who had signed away thousands of acres of community land via a 1904 Maasai Agreement or Treaty with the British. This and the 1911 Agreement – which effectively rendered the first void – are often wrongly called the Anglo-Maasai Agreements. In Ole Gilisho’s view, and those of his fellow plaintiffs, these elders had sold out. The suit accused them of having had no authority to make this decision on behalf of the community. This represented a very serious challenge by warriors to traditional authority, including that of the late laibon (prophet) Olonana, who had signed in 1904, and died in 1911.

The British had expected the Maasai to violently rebel in response to these issues and to colonial rule in general. But contrary to modern-day myths that the Maasai fought their colonisers, here they resisted peacefully via legal means. They hired British lawyers and took the British to their own cleaners. Spoiler: they lost, went to appeal, and lost again. But archival research reveals that the British government was so convinced it would eventually lose, if the Maasai appealed to the Privy Council in London (they didn’t), that officials began discussing how much compensation to pay.

The facts are these. The lawsuit was launched in 1912. There were four plaintiffs, Ole Gilisho and three fellow Purko (one of the 16 Maasai territorial sections) Maasai. In Civil Case No. 91 they claimed that the 1911 Maasai Agreement was not binding on them and other Laikipia Maasai, that the 1904 Agreement remained in force, and they contested the legality of the second move. They demanded the return of Laikipia, and £5,000 in damages for loss of livestock during the second move (explained below). Ole Gilisho was illiterate and had never been to school. But he and his fellow plaintiffs were assisted by sympathetic Europeans who were angered by the injustice they saw being perpetrated against a “tribe” that British administrators conceded had never given them any trouble. These sympathisers included people who worked for the colonial government, notably medical Dr Norman Leys and some district officials, lawyers, a few missionaries, the odd settler, and a wider group of left-wing MPs and anti-colonial agitators in Britain.

What had led up to this? After the 1904 Agreement, certain groups or sections of Maasai had been forcibly moved from their grazing grounds in the central Rift Valley around Naivasha into two reserves – one in Laikipia, the other in the south on the border with German East Africa. The British had pledged that this arrangement was permanent, that it would last “so long as the Maasai as a race shall exist”. But just seven years later, the British went back on their word and moved the “northern” Maasai again, forcing them at gunpoint to vacate Laikipia and move to the Southern Reserve. In all, it is estimated that the Maasai lost at least 50 per cent of their land, but that figure could be nearer 70 per cent. The ostensible reason for moving them was to “free up” land for white settlement – largely for British settlers but also for South Africans fleeing the Boer War (also called the South African War).

But just seven years later, the British went back on their word and moved the ‘northern’ Maasai again, forcing them at gunpoint to vacate Laikipia and move to the Southern Reserve.

By the time the case came to court, Ole Gilisho had become a defendant, even though he was in favour of the plaint. So were at least eight other defendants. He had signed the 1904 Agreement, and now stood accused with 17 other Maasai of having no authority to enter into such a contract. The first defendant was the Attorney General. Ole Gilisho’s son-in-law Murket Ole Nchoko, misspelled Ol le Njogo by the British, and described as a leading moran (il-murran or warrior) of the Purko section, was now the lead plaintiff. The plaint was called Ol le Njogo and others v. The Attorney General and others.

Challenges facing the plaintiffs

Most Maasai were illiterate in those days, and this obviously placed them at a major disadvantage. They could not write down their version of events. They were forced to rely, in their dealings with officials and their own lawyers, upon translators and semiliterate mediators whose reliability was questionable. But it is evident, from the archival record which includes verbatim accounts of meetings between Maasai leaders and British officials in the run-up to the moves and case, that the level of verbal discourse was highly sophisticated. This comes as no surprise; verbal debate is a cornerstone of Maasai society and customary justice. Unfortunately, that alone could not help them here. They knew they needed lawyers, and asked their friends for help. Leys, who was later sacked from the colonial service for his activism, admitted in a private letter: “I procured the best one in the country for them.” This was more than he ever admitted openly.

Local administrators used intimidation and all kinds of devious means to try and stop the case. (I didn’t come across any evidence that the Colonial Office in London sanctioned this; in fact, it ordered the Governor not to obstruct the main lawyer or his clients.) They allegedly threatened Ole Gilisho with flogging and deportation. They threatened and cross-questioned suspected European sympathisers, including Leys and the lawyers. They banned Maasai from selling cattle to raise the legal fees, and placed the Southern Reserve in continuous quarantine. It was hard for the plaintiffs, confined to a reserve, to meet their lawyers at all. At one point, lawyers were refused passes to enter the reserve, and their clients were prevented from leaving it.

We hear Ole Gilisho’s voice in the archival record. Forced to give a statement explaining his actions to officials at Enderit River on 21 June 1912, when asked if he had called Europeans to his boma, he replied: “Is it possible for a black man to call a white man?” He denied having called the Europeans (probably lawyers or go-betweens), saying they had come to him. Leys later explained to a friend that Ole Gilisho had probably been “terrified out of his wits”, and hadn’t meant what he said.

What happened in court

The case was thrown out when it first came before the High Court in Mombasa in May 1913. The Maasai appealed, and that is when the legal arguments were fully aired by both sides – lawyers for the Crown and the Maasai. The appeal was dismissed in December on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims were not cognisable in municipal courts. The two agreements were ruled not to be agreements but treaties, which were Acts of State. They could not, therefore, be challenged in a local court. It was impossible for the plaintiffs to seek to enforce the provisions of a treaty, said the judges – “The paramount chief himself could not bring such an action, still less can his people”. Claims for damages were also dismissed.

The Court of Appeal’s judgement centred on the status of a protectorate, in which the King was said to exercise powers granted to him under the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890. Irrational as it sounds, the Crown claimed that British East Africa was not British territory, and the Maasai were not British subjects with any rights of access to British law, but “protected foreigners, who, in return for that protection, owe obedience” to the Crown. As Yash Pal Ghai and Patrick McAuslan later put it, when discussing the case in a 1970 book: “A British protected person is protected against everyone except the British.” On the plus side, the judges ruled that the Maasai still retained some “vestige” of sovereignty. (The Maasai’s lawyer argued that they did not.) This triggered later moves by Maasai politicians, in the 1960s, to float the idea of secession from Kenya and the possible creation of a sovereign Maasai state. John Keen had threatened this in 1962 at the second Lancaster House Conference in London, attended by a Maasai delegation.

Alexander Morrison, lawyer for the Maasai, argued that British rule and courts were established in the protectorate, which had not been the case 30 years earlier. The Maasai were not foreigners but equal to other British subjects in every way. The agreements were civil contracts, enforceable in the courts, and not unenforceable treaties. If one took the Crown’s claim about Acts of State to its logical conclusion, he argued, a squatter refusing to leave land reserved for the Maasai could only be removed by an Act of State. None of his arguments washed with the judges. (See my 2006 book Moving the Maasai for a fuller account.)

Morrison advised his clients to appeal. It seems they couldn’t raise the funds. However, oral testimony from elders reveals a different story: Ole Gilisho had planned to sail to England to appeal to the Privy Council, but he was threatened with drowning at sea. This is impossible to verify, but it rings true.

In an interview carried out on my behalf in 2008 by Michael Tiampati, my old friend John Keen had this to say about the outcome of the case: “If the hyena was the magistrate and the accused was a goat, you should probably know that the goat would not get any form of justice. So this is exactly how it was that the Maasai could not get any fair justice from British courts.”

Contemporary African resistance

Unbeknown to the Maasai, there was growing anti-colonial resistance in the same period in other parts of Africa. All these acts of resistance have inspired African activists in their continuing struggles. To mention a few: the Chilembwe rebellion in Nyasaland, now Malawi (1915); the Herero revolt in German South West Africa, now Namibia (1904–1908); resistance in present-day Kenya by Mekatilili wa Menza (largely 1913-14); the First Chimurenga or First War of Independence in what is now Zimbabwe (1896–1897); and the Maji Maji rebellion in German East Africa, now Tanzania (1905–1907). But none of these rebellions involved lawsuits. The closest precedent may have been R vs Earl of Crewe, Ex-parte Sekgoma in 1910. Chief Sekgoma, who had been jailed by the British in the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana) after many attempts to remove him as chief, instructed his lawyer to bring a writ of habeus corpus against the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Crewe. He demanded to be tried in an English court, refusing an offer of release on condition that he agrees to live in a restricted area of the Transvaal. The suit was dismissed, the court ruling that the King had unfettered jurisdiction in a protectorate, and his right to detain Sekgoma was upheld. Sekgoma apparently said: “I would rather be killed than go to the Transvaal. I will not go because I have committed no crime – I wish to have my case tried before the courts in England or else be killed.” Freed in 1912, he died two years later.

Enduring myths

The case, and other key events in early twentieth century Maasai history, have given rise to several myths. They include the idea that the stolen land should “revert” to the Maasai after 100 years, but that was not stated in the 1904 Agreement, which was not limited in time, was not a land lease, and has not “expired” as many people claim. Neither agreement has. Keen knew this, but nonetheless called for the land to “revert”. Other myths include the idea that Olonana’s thumbprint was placed on the 1911 Agreement posthumously, and it must therefore be invalid. But neither his thumbprint nor name are on the document, which was “signed” by his son Seggi. Anyhow, Olonana was a key ally of the British, who had no reason to kill him (which is another myth).

The original of the 1904 Agreement has never been found, which has led some Maasai to believe that it never existed and therefore all the land must be restored and compensation paid for its use to date. There may be sound legal arguments for restorative justice, but this is not one of them. These myths are ahistorical and unhelpful, but may be understood as attempts to rationalise and make sense of what happened. Some activists may wish that the Maasai had resisted violently, rather than taken the legal route. Hence the insistence by some that there was a seamless history of armed resistance from the start of colonial rule. Not true. There are much better arguments to be made, by professional lawyers with an understanding of international treaty rights and aboriginal title, which could possibly produce results.

Ole Gilisho had planned to sail to England to appeal to the Privy Council, but he was threatened with drowning at sea.

Where does all this leave the Maasai today? Over the years, there has been much talk of revisiting the case and bringing a claim against Britain (or Kenya) for the return of land or reparations for its loss. None of this has resulted in concrete action. I attended a planning workshop in Nairobi in 2006 when plans were laid for a lawsuit. VIPs present included the late Ole Ntimama, scholar Ben Kantai and John Keen. Keen declared, with his customary flourish, that he would stump up a million shillings to get the ball rolling. I don’t know how much money was raised in total, but it disappeared into thin air. As did the lawyers.

Leading lawyers have advised that too much time has passed, and (unlike the successful Mau Mau veterans’ suit) there are no living witnesses who could give evidence in court. It is unclear whether the agreements still have any legal validity. The British government might argue, as it previously has, including in response to my questions, that it handed over all responsibility for its pre-1963 actions to the Kenyan government at independence. This is a ludicrous argument, which is also morally wrong. Former colonial powers such as Germany have accepted responsibility for historical injustices in their former colonies, notably Namibia. Has the time come for Ole Gilisho’s descendants to call a white man to court?

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Who Is Hustling Who?

In Kenya, political elites across the spectrum are trying to sell off the country for themselves—capitulation is inevitable.



Who Is Hustling Who?
Photo: bennett tobias on Unsplash.
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There should be no doubt that Kenya is in an intractable economic crisis. Filling up gas for a drive from Nairobi to my hometown in Limuru cost 10,000 ksh (about USD70). As a result of the high gas costs prices for everything else have gone up, including public transportation. And those who cannot hike up operating costs, such as the hordes of boda boda motorcycle taxis, are hardly making anything or operating at a loss.Tax hikes mean those who are employed are taking less money home. And no point in kidding ourselves, in a corrupt country some of that money being generated from the higher taxes is going to the politicians. As will the promised 1 billion USD loan from the IMF on whose behest the new austerity measures are being implemented. It is a form of madness to think that a corrupt government will only steal money generated by taxes and do public good with the IMF loan. In short, in a country where close to half the population lives on less than USD2 a day, Kenya is simply unaffordable and the promise of relief is a lie—certainly a convenient lie for the government and IMF officials but a devastating one for Kenya’s majority poor.

My drive to Limuru happened on the first Wednesday (July 19) of the protests. Everything was eerily quiet, Nairobi, renowned for its traffic jams, was quiet. Matatus and buses were parked in their hubs. Shops and stalls were closed. Even the hawkers that dot the roads and highways stayed home. Save for the heavy police presence everywhere, it felt like the country had come to a standstill.

We got to Kangemi shortly after the police had shot and wounded two protestors—the road was strewn with stones and armed riot police huddled by the side of the road waiting for the next wave of attacks that never came. In the end, six people would be shot to death throughout the country, and countless were injured and arrested. Coming from the US, where police arrest protestors and shoot black people, there were no surprises here. The US can hardly be the standard of good policing or democratic practices, but the lives lost simply for asking the government to center the people in its economic planning seemed especially cruel.

But it was the emptiness of the roads that made the whole drive eerie. Perhaps I was refracting what was happening in Kenya through what followed the 1982 coup in which 240 people were killed; or the ethnic clashes of the 1990s that culminated in the 2007 post-election violence. Yet, there was a general agreement among people that there was something different about the Kenya of today—that something was already broken and the nightmares to come were slowly but surely revealing themselves—like a bus carrying passengers and the driver realizing the brakes were out just as it was about to descend a steep hill.

Voting with the middle finger

But all this was predictable. President Ruto has been a known quantity since the 1990s when he led the violent Moi youth wingers. He and his running mate and later president, Uhuru Kenyatta, were brought in front of the ICC to face charges of crimes against humanity following the post-election violence in 2007. Some key witnesses disappeared and others were intimidated into silence. Who in their right mind gives evidence against those in control of the state? The ICC was already discredited as being Western-crimes-against-humanity friendly (the US has never been a signatory rightly afraid its former presidents, such as George Bush, would be hauled before the court). The ICC eventually withdrew the case in March 2015.

I kept asking everyone I met, why was Ruto voted in spite of his history? The answers varied: He rigged the elections; he did not rig and if he did, he only managed to be better at it than Raila Odinga; he appealed to the youth with the idea of building a hustler nation (what a telling term); the Kikuyus have vowed never to have a Luo president and therefore opted for Ruto who is Kalenjin as opposed to Odinga who is Luo.

I sat with older Kikuyu men in the little Nyama Choma spot in Limuru Market and they talked about a generational divide between the Kikuyu and youth (Ruto) and the elderly Kikuyus (Odinga). But the one I heard over and over again was that Kenyans are tired of the Kenyatta and Odinga political dynasties. As one Trump supporter was to say, they voted for him with the middle finger. And so, the Kenyans who voted for Ruto were giving a middle finger to the Kenyatta, Moi and Odinga political dynasties. But no one had really expected buyer’s remorse to kick in one year into the Ruto presidency.

I also asked about Odinga’s protests: what was the end game? One theory is that he was looking at power-sharing, having done it once before, following the 2007 elections. In our shorthand political language, he was looking for another handshake. Some said the people have a right to protest their government, and he is simply asking the government to repeal the tax hikes and reinstate the fuel subsidies. Others believed that he wants to be a genuine and useful voice of opposition for the good of the country and its poor.

My own theory is that he is attempting a people-powered, centered, democratic, and largely peaceful takeover—where people take to the streets to overthrow an unpopular government. We saw this in Latin America in the 2000s. In response to Odinga’s absence during the three days of protests (he was sick), some leaders in his Azimio party have started using this language. The only problem with this strategy is that the sitting government has to be wildly unpopular. Ruto still has a lot of support, meaning that he does not have to compromise or give up power. It was to my mind turning into a stalemate and I was worried that the state would respond with more state-sponsored violence.

But real economics broke the stalemate. In a country where people are barely surviving and the majority are poor without savings to rely on, or relatives to reach out to for help, the hawkers, small stall and shop owners simply went back to work. In other words, those that would have been hurt the most by three days of protests (a day at home literally means a day without food for the family) simply went back to work, and the matatus and buses hummed back to life, slowly on Thursday and full throttle by Friday.

Saturday around Westlands might as well have been as busy as a Monday as people overcompensated for lost time to either sell or shop. If the protests were going to succeed the opposition (composed of some of the wealthiest families in Kenya, including Odinga’s) really should have thought about how best to protect those who would be the most affected. They should find legal and innovative ways to put their money where their political mouths are.

Cuba as Kenya’s north star

Odinga had to change tactics and called for a day of protest against police violence instead of three-day weekly protests in perpetuity. He is now in danger of turning into a caricature of his old revolutionary self and becoming an Al Sharpton, who instead of protesting the American government for the police killings of black people, protests the police themselves leaving the government feeling sanctimonious. Obama or Biden could weigh in, in righteous indignation without offering any real change (remember Obama’s emotional pleas over gun shootings and police shootings as if he was not the one occupying the most powerful office in the US)?

The one question that keeps eating at me is this: why is the most apparent outcome at the time a surprise later? Ruto was always going to sell off Kenya with a percentage for himself and his friends. Odinga was always going to capitulate. The end result is that the Kenyan bus will continue to careen on without brakes. So, what is to be done?

I was in Cuba earlier this year. I got a sense of the same desperation I felt in Kenya but the difference is Cubans have free access to healthcare, education, housing, and food security. They have free access to all the things that make basic survival possible. Before calling for the tax hikes and cutting fuel subsidies might it not have been more prudent to have a safety net for Kenyans? Would that not have been the most logical thing? But of course not, Ruto is acting at the behest of the IMF and big money. Ruto has learned the art of pan-African political rhetoric. Abroad he can call for a different non-US-centered economic system and castigate the French president over paternalism but at home, his politics are hustler politics.

Life in Cuba is difficult, as a result of relentless sanctions from the US,  but it is far from impossible. It remains the north star for those who understand discussions around fundamental change as the only starting point. We can have arguments about the nature of those fundamental changes, but we can all agree we should not be a country where one family, say the Kenyatta family, owns more than half a million acres of land. Or where, as Oxfam reported, four individuals hold more wealth than that held by 22 million Kenyans. The kind of politics that begin with a necessity for fundamental change will obviously not come from Ruto.

But one hopes it can still come from the Odinga camp.  Or even better, from a genuinely progressive people-powered movement that has inbuilt questions of fundamental change in its political, economic, and cultural platform.

In spite of the empty roads, Limuru Market was thriving and Wakari Bar kept its reputation as one of the best places for Nyama Choma and for lively political conversations. People are paying attention, after all, it is their lives and livelihoods on the line. Politicians, especially those in the opposition and the political left should listen as well.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.

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